Such a flap over Eurovision contender
Irish expat Colin McGovern may be downing more than one Guinness this St Patrick’s day if you remind him that his fellow countrymen have selected a real turkey to represent Ireland at this year's Eurovision song contest, however, his glass will be raised in realisation of the true Irish spirit, not shame.
The Irish music industry has had its fair share of heroes, considering our modest population and a competition in mid-February evoked memories of our musical golden era.
Deciding on a golden era can be a tricky business. Measuring critical adulation is an inexact science and record sales ebb and flow with the economy. There was one decade when we were musically unbeatable, the Tiger Woods of song-crafting. That decade was the 1990’s, when we shot our way to four victories in the Eurovision song contest.
In this competition, a winner was chosen to represent Ireland in this year’s song contest in Serbia. The fifth contestant, Dustin, sang with more energy and more personality than his manufactured opponents and thousands of callers voted for his right to travel to Belgrade. However Dustin’s success has Ireland in a flap, since the singer-songwriter representing Ireland in Serbia is a plastic turkey.
Figuratively speaking, Dustin is not the first feathered migration from Ireland into continental Europe. The Flight of the Wild Geese is the name given to the emigration of a group of 17th century Irish Catholic soldiers, who agreed to the victorious William of Orange’s demand to leave Ireland.
These men fought with fellow Catholic armies throughout Europe for the next two centuries and left plenty of stories of bravery and derring-do. Their signature on history, though, is found in the names of families that create famous distillations and fermentations.
Hennessy is a well-known cognac the world over and a small offshoot, known these days as the 'Wine Geese', invaded the now-exclusive Bordeaux wine industry where incongruous brands like Chateau Phelan and Chateau Clarke compete with the best the Bordelais have to offer.
The image of the drunken Irishman is difficult to shake off. The Wild Geese’s incursion into France’s winemaking industry can hardly be blamed; since after all, we did invent our own alcoholic version of McDonalds. While we scoff at Americans for exporting the hamburger as the pinnacle of their culture, our representation of 'Irish ness' in virtually every reasonably-sized city is a pint of Guinness in an Irish pub.
The Irish pub
There are two Irish pubs in my chosen home, one in the very centre and one further afield. Both pubs are nothing like pubs in Ireland but are very similar to those in other cities around Europe and Asia. The reason for this is very simple: they buy their interiors, prêt-a-porter, from Hong Kong. I don’t know if many locals believe they stand in a little corner of Ireland when they inhabit these pubs but the secret of their success is something that McDonalds worked out a long time ago, people like familiarity.
The Irish pub is a known quantity: on the walls hang flat-screen televisions projecting variants of football; on the speakers blasts vaguely alternative music; behind the bar are a mix of Irish, British and Australian hosts, ready to take orders of small beers for the locals, large beers for the tourists and Guinness for the curious or nostalgic.
A good pub is nothing without a celebration and we’ve been very good at exporting our celebrations also. An old Celtic annual festival when the dead spent a night amongst the living became Halloween in Ireland but the menu of trick-or-treating and pumpkins was cooked up by Americans and the template re-imported back into Ireland.
St Patrick's day
Similarly, the modern-day template for the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day came from America, not Ireland. We always had a passable parade but the day itself was relatively low-key, with no great traditions being observed, save for the wearing of shamrock on your lapel at mass.
Meanwhile in New York, the city is shut down every year due to the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world rolling its super-sized way down 5th Avenue. Perhaps it took the confidence of our Eurovision victories or the money of the Celtic Tiger but it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the celebrations on our national holiday rivalled those of our Irish-American cousins. However is the result something uniquely Irish or is it just another booze-up?
What St Patrick's day means to the Irish
At a St. Patrick’s Day event in Utrecht a couple of years ago, I was one of a number of proud, green-wearing Irish men and women present when a camera crew for a Dutch TV channel (they never said which) showed up, searching for proud, green-wearing Irish men and women to interview about the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day. As we stood in front of the cameras and the lights, and were asked what St. Patrick’s Day meant to us, our world famous gift-of-the-gab remained permanently under wraps.
The silence that day made me wonder if our own national holiday really meant anything at all to us; and if a national holiday didn’t have any real meaning, what does “Irishness” mean? Similarly, could anyone from any other country honestly answer the question about their own nationality either?
The Irish spirit
This brings me neatly back to the Eurovision. It’s not taken very seriously here but I don’t think the Dutch would ever vote to send a plastic turkey to the Eurovision. We did, because somewhere in the Irish psyche is the senseless optimism that he could actually win even though it’s a crazy trail to blaze or perhaps even because of this. This trait, more than any stout or whiskey, will always embody the Irish spirit to me and the irony is that it took moving abroad to recognise it.
15 March 2008
Colin McGovern is an Irishman living in Utrecht, the Netherlands.